Jean Nouvel: Expanding Carnegie Science Center
In Pittsburgh on March 14 for the announcement of his
appointment as architect for the expansion of Carnegie Science Center, Jean
Nouvel spoke with Robert J. Gangewere, editor of CARNEGIE magazine. As they
sat on the balcony of the fifth floor of the Science Center, they overlooked the downtown on a
beautiful, sunny afternoon.
Nouvel, at the peak of a distinguished career that has
brought him many honors for his work in Europe, has recently expanded his
practice in the United States. He received the prestigious Gold Award from
the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2001, which noted that during
the present era of architectural blandness and imitation, "His work
shines through as having both clarity and finesse, originality and
Nouvel blends high technology with aesthetic
originality. In Paris his Arab
Institute on the bank of the Seine delights visitors with a multilayered
and often transparent interior. This
includes a glass wall with metal irises in the guise of traditional Islamic
patterns, opening and closing like the human eye to control the intensity
of light entering the building. On
Berlin's historic shopping street, the Friedrichstrasse, his Galeries
Lafayette feature giant, sleek, glass cones to define the volumes, one cone
rising several stories upwards from street level to the top of the
building, and a smaller, inverted cone dropping down from street level past
two underground shopping and two parking levels. His 1980s design for an
endless tower (Tour Sans Fin) in Paris
was never built--an office building that rose dramatically into the sky to
disappear visually into the clouds in a haze of colored, transparent glass.
In Pittsburgh, dressed comfortably and completely in
soft black leather, and smoking his Cuban cigar out-of-doors during a break
in the meetings, he contemplated the Pittsburgh panorama before him. In soft-spoken tones, he reflected on the
challenge of this assignment, which he had said earlier he did not think he
would win, given the length of the competition.
Nouvel's English is good enough to communicate what he
must. He searches sometimes, with the help of his two French advisors, for
the English equivalent of the French expression. He describes downtown as a presque isle (near island), and he
(compatibility) between the Science Center and Heinz Field in their
relation to the Pittsburgh Point.
You spoke about
the genius of the place, having a feeling for this site and the identity of
For me what is incredible at this site is to be on the
river and in this place, because we have the whole skyline of the hills in
front of us. There are outlines
against the sky. You can read every branch of every tree, and it is very,
very precise. Against the horizon
you see the cars, like in a panorama from a Western movie, which would have
horses and cowboys.
The sequence of bridges is very strange…exactly like
what you see with a zoom lens. All
the bridges are seen on the same plane, and you don't have the feeling of
depth. It is a flat screen.
But below the horizon are the two railways, and the cars, and the trucks on
the bridges, and the barges on the river…all in circulation. This panorama
is for me very important in relating the Science Center to downtown, and in
capturing the feel of the downtown. The situation is very different when
you are down on the river. Up here,
above the submarine, you feel the complexity. You have the feeling you are in a
dialogue with the scene, and so I try to catch that. There are so many sensations. I like so
much the park at the Point, in the foreground…it is a nice place.
The genius of the place is its identity, what you cannot
find in another place. Downtown is
like a presque isle. This is a
fantastic situation. If you create a
building where you have this feeling, you become very sensitive to your
relationship with downtown.
But it is a difficult situation if you don't find the
right scale for the height of the Science Center. It is important to organize a building
which has a façade over the existing building, and to create a kind of big
Oriental screen in front of the city, in contrast with the stadium. For this reason I want to go over the
river with the cantilever. With the
cantilever you have an identity different from that of the stadium, but it
is complementary. This situation is
Is that screen
like a contemporary idea of the cinema, of using the city as visual
experience, and of projecting images?
The screen is a two-way screen. When you are inside of
the screen it is transparent, and you can interact with the bridges and the
downtown. When you are outside,
during the day, you will see something very vague, with the people and the
few lights inside, very mysterious.
During the night, because we have the fabric curtains, we can
project movies or slides on an urban scale.
Your subjects are all the themes of modernity and the sciences.
Pittsburgh is a
city of many symbols, like that of the steel industry.
Directly in front you do see the railroads, the barges,
and it is not a pretty landscape, but rather a powerful landscape, and it
is a powerful city. Cities changed
in the 20th century. You
have to look at Pittsburgh today, and you have to be proud of it. In this case you have to catch what is
around. The proposed building itself
is a little bit the same way: a logical structure.
My first thought is that you don’t have to change all of
the original building itself. I will
try to see what we can keep, what we can recycle, and what is the new complémentarité. I think it is important to have a new
global building, to change the image.
When you put together two masses it is critical to
juxtapose the two buildings in a bigger, more complex structure. You cannot keep separate the situation of
the first building, and the second one.
Rather you share a global architecture.
Is this similar to
any of your other projects?
No. But it has a
little something in common with the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, because
in both cities we return to the river to catch something. But the Guthrie is a kind of little
bridge…an endless bridge with silos on it.
Here we have the "facetization" of this building, more
like a new territory of the city.
Every building is a new situation, and is in a complex dialogue with
the context. The context is not only
what is outside, but is also with the program inside …a story with the
meaning of today's program.
Which of your
buildings do you particularly like?
To this I cannot respond. In every case I try to do what I feel is
a good complementary structure. A
building changes the meaning of its surroundings, and you do not just
create a building itself. The modern
way, today, is that a building has to give a sense to a territory, and not
just a sense of itself. Without
that, cities are only a juxtaposition of buildings without relationships,
and complexities are absent.
Science Center will not be a specific expression by Jean Nouvel?
Rather it is an expression of a situation, a
But I always try to create the consciousness of the
beauty of the situation, the poetry of the situation. I try to define that. If I were to talk about these bridges and
so forth to a lot of people, they would not necessarily see that when they
were inside the building. You must
create a little distance from these bridges to look at them. I try to create what they show to me. You have to begin to look at it another
This city is wonderful at night…but all American
downtowns are wonderful in the night.
This one has a very strong identity.
This building will
have park next to it.
Yes I propose not to keep the car park around this
building, because that makes it like a supermarket. It is important to use the park to create
a distance from the stadium. You can
create an adventure park, in relationship with the promenade on the
river. In the urban situation here
you have the park after the stadium, and the continuity of the promenade
and the trees. You enforce the urban
idea by making the strongest promenade you can create. When you arrive at
the Science Center you arrive in the middle of this park, this huge system,
with the promenade as a strong link.
It is always difficult to arrive at a place, and to
achieve the program. But we will
adapt the project, and make it do that.